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Collective Impact in Global Development and the Challenge of Communication

Collective Impact is a systematic approach to solving large and complex social problems through cross-sector coordination

Anyone working on issues that affect the developing world hearing this definition will immediately think of problems such as extreme poverty, hunger and disease that are affected by large interdependent systems. Positive change can only happen in these areas when the most relevant stakeholders from different sectors - governments, multi- and bilateral agencies, multinationals and/or local businesses, international and/or local NGOs and others – effectively work together towards a common agenda, with each contributing their particular resources and expertise.

Already, a large variety of collaborations focus on some of the most pressing issues of our time. For example, the multi-stakeholder Roll Back Malaria Partnership is coordinating a global response to malaria among more than 500 partners. Or look at the Agricultural Growth Corridors in Tanzania and Mozambique, the public-private partnerships to boost agricultural productivity in the wider region.

Yet, many of these efforts are ineffective or fall short of achieving their goals because they do not follow the five conditions of collective success - a common agenda, a shared measurement system, mutually reinforcing activities, continuous communication among stakeholders, and a backbone organization to support the effort. But even when these partnerships are well organized, collective action on a global scale is simply much harder than in a local or national context. Why is that?

First, a multitude of additional contextual challenges complicate activities: weak infrastructure, unstable political conditions and regulatory environments, poor health and education, and… distance! A key difference between, for example, the Collective Impact initiative Strive in Cincinnati that is working to improve education throughout greater Cincinnati and northern Kentucky  and an effort such as the “Vision for Change” initiative in Côte d’Ivoire for cocoa sustainability, a multi-stakeholder Collective Impact approach led by Mars, Inc. is the location and relative distance of the partners involved. Strive involves more than 300 local leaders from foundations, government, educational institutions and nonprofit and advocacy groups. Currently, the key partners in Mars’ “Vision for Change” are the US corporation itself, the Ivorian government, national agricultural institutions, and the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) - an international independent non-profit organization head-quartered in Nairobi, Kenya - as the implementing partner. So while the number of current partners is much smaller in the Mars initiative than for Strive, there are big distances between them that need to be bridged – both geographically and culturally.

Hence, when working on Collective Impact in an international context, the fourth of our conditions of collective success – continuous communication among stakeholders – becomes extremely important, yet also much more difficult to get right. Just think of the difficulties involved in organizing an in-person meeting with partners who are located on different continents: participants may need visas that can take several weeks to get issued and that may be refused; they may not speak the same language, so you need to arrange for professional interpretation, etc. All of this slows down the process and, of course, significantly adds to the cost of organizing a Collective Impact initiative that the funder needs to be willing to carry.

In addition, the organization or individuals acting as the backbone for the initiative need to be extremely capable and creative in building and maintaining relationships and trust across and between a wide range of people and organizations from different backgrounds and in facilitating the dialogue between them - often through virtual means. These individuals need to become the ‘glue’ that holds it all together and have a natural ability to pick up subtle signals of any issues or tensions to be able to address them early on.

Thus, excellent organizational, intercultural and people skills on the part of the backbone organization as well as on the part of the key people at the partner organizations becomes a key condition for success. 

If you have been involved in implementing Collective Impact initiatives in a Global Development context with an international group of partners, we would love to hear from you about the challenges you faced and how you’ve dealt with them – especially with regard to assuring effective and continuous communication among the partners! We look forward to hearing from you.